Their SWP and ours

The weekly newspapers of the SWP (US) and SWP (UK) could not look more different.

The massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 caused genuine shock and horror around the world. There was considerable sympathy for Israel in the wake of the tragedy. But not so for the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the United States. Their response to the terrorist attack was to claim that the ‘real victims’ were Palestinians. For supporters of the Socialist Party, the SWP had crossed a red line. A national campaign was launched to spread the word that the SWP was now openly taking an antisemitic position.

The SWP’s reaction was an interesting one. In their weekly newspaper, The Militant, they ran a series of articles about how the organisation had fought against antisemitism since its founding in the 1930s. They were horrified that anyone would consider them to be antisemites. But their line on Israel and Palestine did not change. And the organisation, which was the largest and most important non-Stalinist group on the American left, remained outspoken in its support for Palestine and against Israel.

The British SWP does not share a common tradition with the American group, except that they both come out of an anti-Stalinist, far Left tradition with somewhat differing views about Trotsky and the Soviet Union. But what they shared in common other than a name until fairly recently was their extreme hostility to Israel and their support for Palestine.

Here’s what the British SWP had to say immediately after the 7 October Hamas attacks on Israeli kibbutzim and towns near Gaza: “Palestinians have struck a huge blow against Israeli settler colonialism”. Note that they use the term “settler” to describe villages set up long before the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or Gaza. By “settler” they mean all Israelis. They continue: “In the face of escalating violence from the Israeli state, Palestinian fighters launched an unprecedented attack from the Gaza Strip on Saturday 7 October.” They found a Palestinian living near Jerusalem who told them: “All of us are proud” of the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians. They are rightly concerned about the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, which will certainly get worse as the fighting continues. But there has not been a single word of criticism of Hamas coming from the SWP.

But meanwhile, in the US, the SWP has made a complete turn-around in its views. The Militant continues to appear each week and in its coverage of Gaza it takes a strong anti-Hamas view. The top headline on their website today is ‘Fight Jew-hatred! Support the right of Israel to exist!’ Another article in the newspaper is entitled ‘Hamas was built to kill Jews, with disdain for Palestinians’. Unlike the British SWP, their coverage of the 7 October massacre and mass kidnapping begins with these words: ‘The cold-blooded massacre … by Tehran-backed Hamas was consistent with the Islamist group’s reactionary course since it was established decades ago.’

A more complete change in position could not be imagined. What caused the change? I honestly don’t know. Some of the top leaders of the American SWP are the same ones who led it back in 1972, most notably Jack Barnes, who has been the party’s National Secretary for more than 50 years. Whatever caused the change, it is certainly a welcome development.

It certainly wasn’t the campaign that we carried out back in 1972. The only response of the SWP to that was denial and a highlighting of their record in the fight against antisemitism decades earlier. Arguably, the fact that they felt an obligation to defend themselves against the charge of antisemitism meant something.

Nothing of the sort is happening here to the British SWP. They, like most groups on the far Left in Britain and across Europe, are uncritical supporters of Hamas, cheerleaders for the worst terrorist attacks experienced by the Jewish people since the Second World War. They cheer on Hamas, an organisation which has done nothing to make Palestinian lives better or advance a two-state solution.

Can anything be done to persuade the majority of far Left groups in Britain and elsewhere to change course and adopt a position similar to that taken by the American SWP? It seems unlikely. But what we can do — and what a new generation must do — is to fearlessly challenge left-wing groups that refuse to condemn Hamas and refuse to recognise the Jewish people’s right to their homeland. Until they do abandon their support for murderous terrorism, they are not my comrades — and they should not be yours either.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.